Communications Intern Tony Funchess

Community Gathering: Unpacking Racism – Ashland, Oregon – Historic Ashland Armory Photo by: Abram Katz, ONTASC Program Director

Community Gathering: Unpacking Racism – Ashland, Oregon – Historic Ashland Armory
Photo by: Abram Katz, ONTASC Program Director

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stairs” these words from Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” always resonate with me when the question is asked for me to share myself.  As a native Portlander and as a Black man the convergence of these two realities are constantly in conflict with each other, but I love both equally.  The struggle, the journey, the destination are all a part of me. The full realization that my identities are at odds, by design, allows me hope and opportunity to unwind the two from conflict and one day operate in a fully liberated mindset…I’m close.

I grew up in the Irvington school district, attended public and private school, been arrested and liberated, and recently graduated from Portland State University.  This journey although packed with left turns, right turns, and even some u-turns has squarely landed me at this place and moment in time to be a positive influence upon my community and world at large. With the crisis of systemic oppression surrounding me, and of all us, on all fronts, there is much work to be done to help bring equity and justice into the everyday lived experiences of Black, Brown, and broke folks.  That work feeds and fuels me.

Over the past year, as I have worked in various communities to bring peace, justice, liberation and create a lasting positive change, I have had the opportunity to live, work, play and love in Ashland.  The distance from a diverse urban center makes life there a daily struggle, but the commitment of so many dedicated people, who have decided to make a difference in regards to social justice and racial equality makes southern Oregon a little better each day.

Even with these positive strides, communities experience setbacks. Recently, in Ashland, Oregon; just south of Medford near the California/Oregon border, a dear friend of mine was verbally assaulted.  The white assailant reminded her that, “It’s an Oregon law that I can kill you and be out of jail in a day and a half. The klan is alive and well here.”  Moments like these are hard, frustrating, and to many, might even be surprising. To me, this type of racism isn’t surprising since much of it is rooted in Oregon’s history.

Oregon born as a state on February 14, 1859, was formed as a haven for white folks.  It was the only free-state admitted to the Union with a specific African-American exclusion already in its constitution.  This along with many other laws prevented blacks and other people of color from living here.  Violation of these laws had severe punishment for people of color who choose to live here. These racist beginnings have made our state a breeding ground for oppression and racial harm.

The Klu Klux Klan historically has held a strong presence in southern Oregon, and it is common knowledge amongst communities of color and the residents that this region is unwelcoming and unsafe for blacks. But collectively we fight back!

MRG grantees Rouge Climate and Unite Oregon (formerly Rogue Valley Oregon Action and the Center for Intercultural Organizing) along with other community partners such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Regional Health Equity Coalition, and the Racial Equity Coalition have joined together to address the harm in their community. They organized a community conversation with over 300 attendees, and Rogue Climate and Unite Oregon helped create Black Lives Matter signs, and organized white people in the area to help support social justice and participate in the recent Fourth of July parade down Main Street in Ashland!

The battle against ignorance and oppression continues, but so does the work of dismantling these systems.  Just the other a day my friend a recent transplant to the area posted on her Facebook, “ I was surrounded by people who admitted their ignorance’s and are on a path of understanding and action. I’m not trying to be cliché here, but today was the first time in Oregon that I felt like I can make this place home.”

Now, back in Portland, and a part of the MRG Foundation team, I am grateful that I can continue my own social justice advocacy while having the opportunity to work with, and support the work of, so many other wonderful community organizations focused on creating a more equitable Oregon.

It takes all of us despite our differences!  Whether our focus is the environment, or immigration, or any other social ill, it requires us all coming together seeing our commonality and finding ways to join efforts to ensure a better quality of life for us all! I am grateful for the opportunities to continue statewide, intersectional equity and justice work, which is at the heart of MRG Foundation. Together we look beyond urban centers or the loudest voices in the room, to hear from those impacted no matter their location or challenge. This work is collaborative, transformative, rewarding and never-ending.

I welcome each of you to consider how you can help further social justice in Oregon. It doesn’t have to be some great big thing – it can be, but it doesn’t have to be.  It doesn’t have to take a lot of money or time, but it does take sincerity, intentionality, and commitment. It could be something as simple as writing a blog about your experiences and efforts, or a financial contribution to organizations like MRG Foundation and our grantees who are already doing the work, or you can give the gift of your time, finances, or your presence at events like MRG’s upcoming Southern Oregon Celebration, recognizing the amazing work of our grantees, partners, and friends in southern Oregon , or it could be as simple as having a conversation about social justice with someone you normally wouldn’t have a conversation with.  There are many ways you can impact a life and change the world, it simply requires that you start TODAY and “Do Something.”

I recently spoke to a group of students at the Oregon Campus Compact’s MLK Day of Service. I leave you with the same question I left them, a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

Before I ever heard these words, this question has been leading me and drawing me into the work of social justice.  Every step of the way has pointed me to addressing this persistent and urgent question of looking at my own life and how I can use my life in a positive way.  As you identify in what ways you can help further social justice work in Oregon always remember that life in general “ain’t been no crystal stairs,” but together we can make the journey up a little better when we share what we have and who we are in service to others!

Ashland 4th of July parade Photo by: Julie Cortez, Communications Manager – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ashland 4th of July parade Photo by: Julie Cortez, Communications Manager – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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